For centuries along Stratford Point, beds of shellfish rested just beneath the surface of Long Island Sound.
Those fish and much of the other wildlife accompanying their food chain have been decimated by human activity and rising sea levels.
Within the next decade, Jennifer Mattei hopes to help change things back to the way they used to be. She envisions a marshland running into a beach where plentiful mussels and oysters may wash up on the shore.
It may be wishful thinking, but Mattei said she’s hopeful some of the previous wildlife will be restored while making the shoreline more resistant to erosion.
“We’re trying to do in 10 to 15 years what may take 100,” Mattei said. “You can’t put back a 500-year-old tree once you cut it down, so we have to be realistic. It may not be perfect, and it’s possible it may never happen.”
Scientists with Sacred Heart University, where Mattei works as a professor and ecologist, are teaming with staff from the Connecticut Audubon Society to try to create the state’s first “living shoreline,” where species of fish and birds that once lived in the area return due to a combination of human engineering and biological conditions suitable for inhabiting.
The two institutions received a $59,000 Long Island Sound Futures Fund grant in October to rebuild the ecosystem both to bring back wildlife and create a natural buffer against powerful storms like Hurricane Sandy.
Mattei, along with graduate students from Sacred Heart’s environmental science and management program, plans to monitor most of the work during its first year.
The area is owned by DuPont and is protected by a conservation easement. The site has been under heavy restoration work by both groups, including a controlled burn of 20 acres along the shorefront to clear invasive plant species.
The new grant money will be used to purchase 40 “reef balls” – essentially large concrete geodesic gumdrops with Swiss-cheese holes – to act as a buffer against tidal changes and waves. Mussel and oyster populations, which were once more common and native to the area, have been decimated, Mattei said.
The shellfish acted as a natural barrier against erosion and other damage to the beachfront, allowing seawater to pass through their bodies and slowing the waves’ impact on the shoreline. The idea behind the reef balls is to create a simulated buffer like a coral reef. The structure also provides protection to the shellfish, which prefer a hard surface to rest on instead of Long Island Sound’s muddy bottom near the inlet, she said.
Holes in the balls allow water to pass through but also allow silt and sediment to accumulate.
That buffer will be installed about 150 feet out into the water across a 3.5-acre section of the intertidal zone, with the roughly 4-foot-tall balls only visible during low tide.
Alexander brash, president of the Connecticut Audubon Society, said the process should be economically efficient. Instead of using heavy equipment to create a larger barrier or levee, the reef balls are far less expensive and less disruptive to the environment, he said.
“Instead, we’re looking to leverage Mother Nature’s natural inclination to restore the site and let natural processes like sedimentation slowly recap the site,” Brash said on Tuesday. “This is a pilot program, but if it works, we’ve found a more natural way to rebuild the estuary that’s far more economically effective.”
Once the reef balls are installed – which is scheduled to begin in March or April – volunteers and members of the two institutions will start to plant additional sea grasses behind the reef barrier, while adding more to an existing dune system to prevent further erosion.
The project is an experiment.
Mattei said scientists are uncertain whether the project will work, since it has never been completed in the state. However, other states – including Alabama and Florida – have found success in similar endeavors.
“It’s much better to preserve what we have than to try to restore what we’ve lost, but it’s still worth trying,” Mattei said.
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